…took to the streets again, and the irony is not lost on me that while they were doing so I was proofreading the manuscript of The Teller of Tales, my translation of the first five stories in their national epic, the Shahnameh. Nothing about literary translation, at least as I am practicing it here, in the comfort and safety of my home in the United States, even remotely approaches the courage and determination and commitment shown by the people who presented their bodies in Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and elsewhere in protest of a régime that sees those bodies as not much more than dust that can be swept away if necessary; and yet it’s hard not also to be aware that the text I was correcting is inextricably connected to the aspirations of the Iranian protesters, not in the sense of cause-and-effect inspiration, but because the Shahnameh, as Dick Davis put it in Epic & Sedition, has been for centuries “one of the chief means by which both Persian rulers and the [Iranian] people have sought to define their identity to themselves and to the world at large.”
When Abolqasem Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh in the 10th century, Iran had been under Muslim Arab rule for around 300 years. Arabic, not Persian, was the language of the court, of literature, of philosophy; and the Muslim belief that everything before the coming of Islam was historically, culturally, politically and of course theologically irrelevant had resulted over time in a growing acceptance among Muslim Iranians that it might be possible to redefine Iran’s history and culture in Islamic terms. A man named Tabari wrote a revisionist history along these lines, identifying specific characters in Iran’s culture with characters who inhabit the world of the Quran. Jamshid, for example, the fourth king in the Shahnameh, who is responsible for the emergence of what we would recognize as civilized society, is equated in Tabari’s book with King Solomon, while Kayumars, the Shahnameh’s first monarch, is said to be the same as Adam.
Not everyone accepted this assimilationist approach, especially Iran’s landed gentry, the dehqan, who saw themselves as responsible for preserving Iran’s history and culture. Ferdowsi was a dehqan and it was precisely to preserve Iran’s pre-Islamic history and culture that he wrote the Shahnameh. Yet Ferdowsi’s goal was neither revolutionary nor heretical. He was a devout Muslim who accepted completely the monarchy under which he lived. Rather, his goal was, as Sandra Mackey puts it in The Iranians, to express “the separate identity within Islam that Iranians [have always] felt.” For many, including some of his fellow poets, this goal was heretical. The poet Farrokhi, for example, a contemporary of Ferdowi’s, declared the Shahnameh “untruth from the beginning to the end.” Abd-al-Jalil Qazvini accused Ferdowsi of “reciting myths on the bravery and magnificance of Rostam and Kavus [two characters from the Shahnameh] in order [sinfully] to counter the heroism and splendour of [Imam] Ali.” Still another poet, Mo’ezzi, suggested that Ferdowsi would be punished in the next world because of the untruths he told in the Shahnameh. (These quotes are taken from A. Shapur Shahbazi’s Ferdowsi: A Critical Biography.)
The Islamic Republic of Iran was, from its very beginning, also threatened by the Shahnameh and its celebration of pre-Islamic Iranian history and culture. According to Sandra Mackey, for example, Ayatollah Khomeini “tried to eradicate vestiges of Iran’s pre-Islamic culture [by attacking] Ferdowsi, discourag[ing] the use of Persian first names, and hint[ing] at an end to the observance of No Ruz [the Persian New Year] by expressing the hope that in the future the only holiday celebrated would be the Prophet’s birthday.” Even as recently as 2009, the Islamic Republic’s behavior towards Ferdowsi would seem to indicate that it still feels this threat very keenly. According to an article posted on the website of the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS), all programs in Iran planned by the Ferdowsi Foundation to celebrate Ferdowsi’s millenium in 2009 had to be canceled because of a lack of coöperation from the relevant agencies of the Islamic Republic. The same article reports that on June 14, 2009 – which is Ferdowsi’s commemoration day in Iran – the government of the Islamic Republic demolished, without providing any reason, the Foundation’s unfinished building in Iran. Also in 2009, the blogger Pedestrian reported that the Iranian journalist Bahman Ahmadi was sentenced to eight years in prison for publishing part of the Shahnameh during the protests against the contested elections that kept Mahmoud Ahmanidejad in power.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression, though. It’s not that the Shahnameh is banned in Iran, or that people can only talk about Ferdowsi or quote from his epic in whispers because the government would otherwise throw them in jail. The Shahnameh, however, clearly seems to resonate with the people of Iran in a way that their government finds threatening and so bringing into American English poetry the parts of the Shahnameh that I have translated resonates within me as a small declaration of solidarity, as I hope it will resonate with the people who read my translation when it comes out next month – or with those who read any of the translations that are available, from Dick Davis’ prose translation of the entire epic to Jerome Clinton’s verse translations of two of Rostam’s stories.
The story I am up to in my proofreading is the story of Tahmures, the third king of the Shahnameh, also known as “Demon Binder” because he bound Ahriman, the devil figure” and rode him around the earth like a horse. When the Black Demon led a force of demons and sorcerers against Tahmures for this insult to their leader, Tahmures so thoroughly defeated them that they only way he would agree to spare their lives was if they promised to teach him knowledge no one else possessed. What they taught him was how to write:
They taught Tahmures to shape each letter
and pronounce the sound it stood for,
and this new and profitable knowledge
lit a light in him like the sun.
Writing so often plays such an important role in the toppling of tyrants that I will leave you, simply, with the irony that, in the Shahnameh at least, it was the tyrants themselves who taught humanity how to do it.